Joining the posse
The University showed good judgment in partnering with the Posse Foundation, but institutions must resist a trend toward concentrating aid in merit programs
The University last week announced that it was partnering with the Posse Foundation, a college access program that won its creator Deborah Bial a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2007.
The Posse Foundation identifies and trains public high school students from urban backgrounds who college admissions officers might otherwise overlook. The foundation places these students in supportive 10-member teams: “posses.” Institutions that partner with the foundation award Posse Scholars four-year full-tuition scholarships.
The foundation has sites in several major cities, including New Orleans, New York and Chicago. It opened its ninth site in Houston in 2012. The 10-person multicultural “posse” to which the University will award full-tuition scholarships will hail from Houston.
The University’s decision to join the ranks of such schools as Northwestern and Vanderbilt in sponsoring Posse Scholars is good for a few reasons. First and foremost, it benefits the students who receive scholarships. The 50 students from Houston who will attend the University over the next five years will have access to a top-drawer education that will enhance their potential as leaders, thinkers and citizens. The partnership also helps the school. The presence of more talented students from diverse backgrounds should increase opportunities for peer learning among University students.
Organizations such as the Posse Foundation (or QuestBridge, with which the University also partners) are important players in the higher-education ecosystem. By identifying students who would make good use of a full-ride scholarship, they give less-privileged young people a chance to secure some of the same opportunities that their better-positioned peers enjoy.
We cannot help but view the University’s announcement of its partnership with the Posse Foundation — complete with testimonials affirming the University’s commitment to “diversity and equity” — in light of the Board of Visitors’ recent cuts to AccessUVa. These partnerships sometimes requires long negotiations processes to get off the ground. So to dismiss the University’s support of Posse Scholars as a mere show of the school’s commitment to access following its elimination of all-grant aid for low-income students is overly suspicious. There is little to no chance that the two developments were linked; after all, the decisions came from different parts of the University: one from the Board, the other from the Office of Admissions and the Office of the President. Nonetheless, juxtaposing these two recent decisions that deal with how the University thinks about “access” provides an intriguing point of analysis.
There are two ways to consider “access” when it comes to college admissions and tuition. Merit-based programs such as Posse Scholars poise a very small number of otherwise-overlooked students for success by stripping away financial barriers and providing them with a support network. These programs do not help many students in terms of aggregate number. But the students they do help are helped considerably.
Programs such as AccessUVa give moderate help to many rather than extraordinary help to a few. The University’s financial-aid program is merit-based insofar as a student must win admission to the school to be eligible for aid. But apart from this baseline assessment of merit, AccessUVa assists students based on need alone.
Providing “regular” low-income students with grants is not very glamorous. Partnering with a high-profile organization whose founder won a MacArthur grant is. But universities, including ours, should resist a trend toward concentrating aid in merit scholarships, and counting such programs as checks toward diversity. Consider the incentives we create if institutional aid lapses. Low-income students can either take on tens of thousands of dollars of debt, or they can try to win a highly competitive full-ride scholarship. For some students, it could come down to a full ride or nothing. The stakes should not be so high.
The concentration of aid in merit-based programs does not achieve “access” in any wide-ranging way. Real strides toward improving college access come from sustaining programs like AccessUVa. Many students are in need: but most don’t come with a posse.